By Jacob Shurba, intern at the American Bald Eagle Foundation

** Warning, there are photos of dead and dying birds in this post. **

As a wildlife rehabilitator and disease ecologist, I am no stranger to seeing animals in some sort of peril, especially birds. Besides the normal everyday struggles like predation and food shortages, birds are up against many anthropogenic (human made) factors as well. These include power lines, soccer nets, and toxins such as lead. Lead in particular is a major threat to many birds, including waterfowl and bald eagles. As a disease ecologist, it is easy to tell when a bird is suffering from lead toxicity – but to someone who does not look at toxicity for a living, symptoms of lead poisoning can be subtle. I would like to discuss lead toxicity, what it looks like, how it happens, and what you can do, as an average Joe, to help protect the species at risk.

The scientific definition of lead poisoning, also known as lead toxicity, from the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) Field Handbook of Wildlife Diseases is, “Lead poisoning is an intoxication resulting in absorption of hazardous levels of lead into body tissues.” While the definition seems clear-cut, how does lead poisoning affect birds, and what do symptoms look like? There are a select few ways that toxicity occurs, though it is mostly caused by the ingestion of an object that is either straight lead, or contains lead in some way.

The truly nefarious thing about this toxin is that it can remain in the environment for a prolonged period, which is how it is introduced to most waterfowl. Even though lead shot was banned from being used in waterfowl hunting in 1991, pellets from before that time still sit at the bottom of marshes and ponds just waiting to be ingested by unsuspecting waterfowl. These birds are not actively searching out the lead pellets, rather they eating things out of the mud and will accidentally pick up the pellets while they eat. In the case of eagles and other raptors such as condors, the lead is ingested in a very different way. While lead shot may be banned for the hunting of waterfowl, it isn’t banned for other types of hunting. So, a hunter may shoot an animal, gut it and leave the guts in a pile in the woods for scavengers to eat.

The fragmented lead shot is usually remaining in the gut pile, and when eagles and other birds come down to eat the guts, lead is ingested and the poison begins to work its deadly magic. It is not difficult for scavengers to accidentally swallow these fragmented bits of lead. In a study performed from 2002-2004 by the Peregrine Fund, they discovered that in 38 deer carcasses, five of them contained over 200 lead fragments, five contained 100-199 lead fragments, and five contained 10-100 lead fragments. They went on to take x-rays of 20 different gut piles and found that 18 of them contained lead fragments.

Lead in bird stomach
In this photo from USGS, look where the arrows are pointing. It is there you can see lead pellets in the gizzard (or stomach) of the bird
Photo credit: USGS National Wildlife Health Center

There are a few ways of identifying lead poisoning symptoms in birds. In the field, lead poisoned birds generally won’t fly away when approached. However, if they do attempt flight one will notice that they are weak and are unable to fly long distances, or they fly very erratically and do not land very well. In the case of waterfowl, they begin to develop an abnormality where their wings form a roof shape over their backs. The birds are also generally lethargic and have a lot of trouble eating and drinking normally. This begins to display itself in something called “hatchet breast” which is when the bird loses so much muscle and fat that the breast bone (or keel) is visible through the feathers, looking like a hatchet blade.

Ducks with lead poisoning
In this photo, we can see a great example of a mallard with the roof shaped wings that result from lead poisoning. Photo credit USGS National Wildlife Health Center


Hatchet Breast
This bird has been autopsied to show a clear view of “hatchet breast” that results from lead poisoning. Photo credit USGS National Wildlife Health Center

Although lead poisoning seems to be an ominous feat there is a glimmer of hope, and that’s where humans play in. The bald eagle, besides being our national symbol is also a huge conservation success story which shows that if we work together, we can bring a species back from the brink of extinction. I’m not saying that the bald eagle is again in danger of going extinct, but if this problem isn’t solved, then that is a distinct possibility. So, what do we do?

Lead shot.jpg
In this photo, you can see how lead fragments once the shell is dispensed from the weapon. It only takes a small amount of lead to cause lead poisoning.
Photo credit: The Peregrine Fund

While there are many different choices, we will focus on the ones that are easy and cheap to implement. The first and by far the largest change one can make, is a change from lead shot to a different type of shot. Don’t use lead shot. Copper and steel shot are both excellent alternatives to lead, since neither have negative side effects if ingested. The other thing that can be done is removing gut piles from the woods after you’ve dressed your animal. For any fisherman, an easy thing to do is be mindful of what sort of tackle you are using. Make sure that you are using tackle that doesn’t have any lead, there are many places that sell non-lead fishing tackle. If we try to implement these things as well as others for a more conservation based life style, we can keep this beautiful bird soaring through the sky where they belong.


One thought

  1. SEVEN Reasons To Choose Lead-free Ammo [by the Clark Armory Team]:
    1 – Lead-free STOPS bald eagle (and other wildlife) lead bi-kill.
    2 – Protect yourself, family & friends from lead in harvested game.
    3 – Protect yourself, family & friends from other lead exposure (dust particulates).
    4 – Protect the environment from lead.
    5 – Lead-free ammo is NOT expensive, it’s comparable & typically price matched.
    6 – Lead-free ammo performs well, & in many parameters is BETTER.
    7 – Lead-free ammo performs BETTER for self-defense & training.
    These speak for themselves, in appalling fashion…
    Copper vs Lead Bullet Study pt I –
    Copper vs Lead Bullet Study pt II –
    Copper vs Lead Bullet Study pt III –

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